Wu Zetian

Wu Zetian
Wu Zetian
Empress Regnant of the Zhou Dynasty
Empress of Zhou Dynasty
Reign 16 October 690[1][2] – 22 February 705[3][4]
(&1000000000000001400000014 years, &10000000000000129000000129 days)
Predecessor none, Emperor Ruizong as Emperor of Tang Dynasty
Successor dynasty abolished, Emperor Zhongzong as Emperor of Tang Dynasty
Empress consort of Tang Dynasty
Tenure 655-683
Predecessor Empress Wang
Successor Empress Wei
Spouse Emperor Taizong of Tang
Emperor Gaozong of Tang
Li Hong, Emperor Yizong
Li Xian, Crown Prince Zhanghuai
Princess Si of Anding
Li Xian, Emperor Zhongzong
Li Dan, Emperor Ruizong
Princess Taiping
Full name
Family name: Wu (武)
Given name: Mei (媚),[5] later Zhao (曌/瞾), possibly originally Zhao (照)[6]
Posthumous name
Short: Empress Zetian (則天皇后)[7]
Full: Empress Zetian Shunsheng (則天順聖皇后)[8]
Temple name
House Wu (by birth)
House of Li (by marriage)
Father Wu Shihuo, Duke Ding of Ying
Mother Lady Yang
Born 17 February 624(624-02-17)[10]
Lizhou, Sichuan Province, Tang Dynasty
Died 16 December 705(705-12-16) (aged 81)[11]
Luoyang, Tang Dynasty
Burial 706
Qianling Mausoleum

Wu Zetian (simplified Chinese: 武则天; traditional Chinese: 武則天; pinyin: Wǔ Zétiān, Mandarin pronunciation: [ù tsɯ̯ʌ̌ tʰi̯ɛ́n]) (17 February 624[10][12] – 16 December 705[11]), personal name Wu Zhao (武曌), often referred to as Tian Hou (天后) during the Tang Dynasty and Empress Consort Wu (武后) in later times, was the only woman in the history of China to assume the title of Empress Regnant (Huangdi). As de facto ruler of China first through her husband and her sons from 665 to 690, not unprecedented in Chinese history, she then broke all precedents when she founded her own dynasty in 690, the Zhou (周) (interrupting the Tang Dynasty), and ruled personally under the name Sacred and Divine Empress Regnant (聖神皇帝) and variations thereof from 690 to 705. Her rise and reign has been criticized harshly by Confucian historians but has been viewed in a different light after the 1950s.


Biographical sketch

Family background and birth

Wu was born in Lizhou (利州) (modern day Guangyuan City in Sichuan Province) in 624,[10] the seventh year of Emperor Gaozu of Tang’s reign. In the same year, a total eclipse of the Sun was visible across China. Her father Wu Shihuo was engaged in the timber business and the family was relatively well off. During the final years of Emperor Yang of Sui, Li Yuan (李淵) (who would go on to become Emperor Gaozu of Tang), whilst holding appointments in both Hedong and Taiyuan, Li stayed in the Wu household many times and became close to the Wu family. After Li Yuan overthrew Emperor Yang, he was generous to the Wu family, providing them with money, grain, land and clothing. Once the Tang Dynasty became established, Wu Shihou held a succession of senior ministerial posts including governor of Yangzhou, Lizhou and Jingzhou (荊州) (modern day Jiangling County, Hubei Province).

Wu Zetian was a strong willed child who refused to study needlework like most girls of the time. Instead she was only interested in reading, from which she gained a wide political awareness. During her childhood she travelled widely with her parents and thus developed a cultured and knowledgeable personality.

Initial concubinage

Wu Zetian entered the Tang palace at 13 and became a concubine of Emperor Taizong of Tang. She did not become a favorite of Taizong's, and after his death in 649, she might have been expected to spend the rest of her life as a Buddhist nun, like his other childless concubines. She was fortunate in that Empress Wang, the wife and empress of Emperor Taizong's son and successor Emperor Gaozong, wanted another beautiful concubine to divert Emperor Gaozong's favors from Consort Xiao, with whom Empress Wang was having a desperate struggle. Wang had Wu brought back to the palace and made her a concubine of Emperor Gaozong. Consort Wu as she became known proceeded to defeat both Empress Wang and Consort Xiao in the struggle for Emperor Gaozong's affection, and subsequently, both Empress Wang and Consort Xiao were killed, and she was made empress.

As Empress

As Empress Wu progressively gained more and more influence over the governance of the empire throughout Emperor Gaozong's reign, and toward the end of Emperor Gaozong's reign, she was effectively making most of the major decisions. She was regarded as ruthless in her endeavors to grab power, and was believed by traditional historians to have even killed her own daughter to frame Empress Wang, and her own eldest son Li Hong in a power struggle. She subsequently had another son, Li Xián, deposed and exiled.

As Empress Dowager

After Emperor Gaozong's death in 683, Empress Wu became the empress dowager and proceeded to depose a third son, Emperor Zhongzong, for displaying independence. She then had her youngest son Emperor Ruizong made emperor, but was ruler not only in substance but in appearance as well, as she presided over imperial gatherings and prevented Emperor Ruizong from taking an active role in governance. In 690, she had Emperor Ruizong yield the throne to her and established the Zhou Dynasty. The early part of her reign was characterized by secret police terror, which moderated as the years went by. She was, on the other hand, recognized as a capable and attentive ruler even by traditional historians who despised her, and her ability at selecting capable men to serve as officials was admired throughout the rest of the Tang Dynasty as well as in subsequent dynasties.[13] In 705, she was overthrown in a coup, and Emperor Zhongzong was returned to the throne. She continued to carry the title of "emperor" until her death later in the year.

As Emperor Taizong's concubine

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The future Wu Zetian entered Emperor Taizong's palace when she was 13 years old—i.e., sometime between 636 and 638—after Emperor Taizong heard of her beauty. She was given the title of cairen, title for one of the consorts with the fifth rank in Tang's nine-rank system for imperial officials, nobles, and consorts.[14][15] Emperor Taizong gave her the name Mei (媚), meaning "pretty."[15] (Thus, today Chinese people often refer to her as Wu Mei or Wu Meiniang (武媚娘) when they write about her youth, whereas they refer to her as Empress Wu (武后) when referring to her as empress and empress dowager and Wu Zetian (武則天) when referring to her reign as "emperor.")[citation needed] When she was summoned to the palace, her mother Lady Yang wept bitterly when saying farewell to her, but she responded, "How do you know that it is not my fortune to meet the Son of Heaven?" Lady Yang understood her ambitions, and therefore stopped crying.

Consort Wu, however, did not appear to be much favored by Emperor Taizong, although it appeared that she did have sexual relations with him at one point.[16] According to her own account during her reign later while rebuking the chancellor Ji Xu, there was an occasion during the time she was Emperor Taizong's concubine when she impressed Emperor Taizong with her fortitude:

Emperor Taizong had a horse with the name "Lion Stallion", and it was so large and strong that no one could get on its back. I was a lady in waiting attending Emperor Taizong, and I suggested to him, "I only need three things to subordinate it: an iron whip, an iron hammer, and a sharp dagger. I will whip it with the iron whip. If it does not submit, I will hammer its head with the iron hammer. If it still does not submit, I will cut its throat with the dagger." Emperor Taizong praised my bravery. Do you really believe that you are qualified to dirty my dagger? [17]

Consort Wu did not have any children with Emperor Taizong. It was said that on one occasion, when Emperor Taizong's crown prince Li Zhi saw her, he was shocked by her beauty. After Emperor Taizong died in 649, Li Zhi became emperor (as Emperor Gaozong), and she and the other imperial consorts who did not have children went to Ganye Temple (感業寺) and became Buddhist nuns.

As Emperor Gaozong's concubine

On an anniversary of Emperor Taizong's death,[18] Emperor Gaozong went to Ganye Temple to offer incense, and when he and Consort Wu saw each other, both of them wept—and were seen by Emperor Gaozong's wife Empress Wang.[19] At that time, Emperor Gaozong did not favor Empress Wang, and much favored his concubine Consort Xiao; further, Empress Wang did not have any children, and Consort Xiao had one son (Li Sujie) and two daughters (Princesses Yiyang and Xuancheng). Empress Wang, seeing that Emperor Gaozong was still impressed by Consort Wu's beauty, hoped that the arrival of a new concubine would divert the emperor from Consort Xiao, and therefore secretly told Consort Wu to stop shaving her hair and, at a later point, welcomed her to the palace. (Some modern historians dispute this traditional account, and some think that Consort Wu never actually left the imperial palace and might have had an affair with Emperor Gaozong while Emperor Taizong was still alive.)[citation needed] Wherever the truth lies, by the early 650s Consort Wu was a concubine of Emperor Gaozong, and she was titled Zhaoyi (昭儀), i.e. the highest ranking of the nine concubines of the second rank. Consort Wu soon overtook Consort Xiao in her favor from Emperor Gaozong. (The taking of a father's concubine—one who was believed to have had sexual relations with the deceased Emperor Taizong—was considered incest by traditional Confucian principles.)[16][20] In 652, she gave birth to her first child, a son named Li Hong. In 653, she gave birth to another son, Li Xián. (Later, after she became empress, she would bear two more sons (Li Xiǎn (note different tone) and Li Dan), and one daughter (the later Princess Taiping). For the time being, however, neither of these sons were in contention to be Emperor Gaozong's heir, as Emperor Gaozong had, pursuant to requests of officials instigated by Empress Wang and her uncle, the chancellor Liu Shi, created his oldest son Li Zhong, whose mother Consort Liu was of lowly birth and whose gratitude Empress Wang expected. By 654, both Empress Wang and Consort Xiao had lost favor with Emperor Gaozong, and the former romantic rivals joined forces against Consort Wu, but to no avail, and as a sign of his love to Consort Wu, in 654 he conferred posthumous honors on her father Wu Shihuo.

Also in 654, shortly after Consort Wu gave birth to a daughter, the daughter died. Empress Wang was allegedly seen near the child's room by eyewitnesses, and Emperor Gaozong suspected that she killed the child out of jealousy. She was unable to clear herself in Emperor Gaozong's eyes. (Traditional historians believed that Consort Wu actually killed her own daughter to frame Empress Wang, although it was possible that this allegation was manufactured by historians.)[21] In anger, Emperor Gaozong considered deposing Empress Wang and replacing her with Consort Wu, but wanted to make sure that the chancellors would support this, and so visited the house of his uncle Zhangsun Wuji, the leader among chancellors, with Consort Wu, awarding him with much treasure, but when he brought up the topic that Empress Wang was sonless (as an excuse for deposing her), Zhangsun repeatedly found ways to divert the conversation, and subsequent visits by Consort Wu's mother Lady Yang and the official Xu Jingzong, who was allied with Consort Wu, to seek support from Zhangsun were also to no avail.[21]

In summer 655, Consort Wu accused Empress Wang and her mother Lady Liu of using witchcraft. In response, Emperor Gaozong barred Lady Liu from the palace and demoted Liu Shi.[21] Meanwhile, a faction of officials began to form around Consort Wu, including Li Yifu, Xu, Cui Yixuan (崔義玄), and Yuan Gongyu (袁公瑜). On an occasion in fall 655, Emperor Gaozong summoned the chancellors Zhangsun, Li Ji, Yu Zhining, and Chu Suiliang to the palace—which Chu deduced to be regarding the matter of changing the empress. Li Ji claimed an illness and refused to attend. At the meeting, Chu vehemently opposed deposing Empress Wang, while Zhangsun and Yu showed their disapproval by silence. Meanwhile, other chancellors Han Yuan and Lai Ji also opposed the move, but when Emperor Gaozong asked Li Ji again, Li Ji's response was, "This is your family matter, Your Imperial Majesty. Why ask anyone else?" Emperor Gaozong therefore became resolved. He demoted Chu to be a commandant at Tan Prefecture (潭州, roughly modern Changsha, Hunan),[21] and then deposed both Empress Wang and Consort Xiao, putting them under arrest and creating Consort Wu empress instead to replace Empress Wang. (Later that year, Empress Wang and Consort Xiao were killed on orders by the new Empress Wu after Emperor Gaozong showed signs of considering to release them. After their deaths, however, Empress Wu was often haunted by them in her dreams, for the rest of Emperor Gaozong's reign, Emperor Gaozong and she often took up residence at the eastern capital Luoyang and only infrequently spent time in Chang'an.)[22]

As empress consort

In 656, per advice of Xu Jingzong, Emperor Gaozong deposed Li Zhong to be the Prince of Liang, while creating Li Hong, then carrying the title of Prince of Dai, to be crown prince.[22]

In 657, Empress Wu and her allies began reprisals against officials who had opposed her ascension. She first had Xu and Li Yifu, who were by now chancellors, falsely accuse Han Yuan and Lai Ji of being complicit with Chu Suiliang in planning treason. The three of them, along with Liu Shi, were demoted to be prefects of remote prefectures, with provisions that they would never be allowed to return to Chang'an. In 659, she further had Xu accuse Zhangsun Wuji of plotting treason with the low level officials Wei Jifang (韋季方) and Li Chao (李巢). Zhangsun was exiled and, later in the year, was forced to commit suicide in exile. Xu further implicated Chu, Liu, Han, and Yu Zhining in the plot as well. Chu, who had died in 658, was posthumously stripped of his titles, and his sons Chu Yanfu (褚彥甫) and Chu Yanchong (褚彥沖) were executed. Orders were also issued to execute Liu and Han, although Han died before the execution order reached his location. It was said that after this point, no official dared to criticize the emperor any longer. In 660, Li Zhong, who had been fearful that he would be next and had sought out advice of fortune tellers, was also exiled and put under house arrest.[22]

Also in 660, Emperor Gaozong and Empress Wu toured Bian Prefecture (i.e., Taiyuan), and Empress Wu had the opportunity to invite her old neighbors and relatives to a feast.[22] Later that year, Emperor Gaozong began to suffer from an illness that carried the symptoms of painful headache and loss of vision, generally thought to be hypertension-related,[23] but which some historians thought might be slow-poisoning by Empress Wu,[24] and he began to have Empress Wu make rulings on the petitions by the officials. It was said that Empress Wu had quick reactions and understood both literature and history, and therefore was making correct rulings. Thereafter, her authority began to rival Emperor Gaozong's.[22]

By 664, however, Empress Wu was said to be so interfering in the imperial governance that she was angering Emperor Gaozong. Further, she had engaged the Taoist sorcerer Guo Xingzhen (郭行真) in using witchcraft — an act that was prohibited by regulations and which had led to Empress Wang's downfall — and the eunuch Wang Fusheng (王伏勝) reported this to Emperor Gaozong, further angering him. He consulted the chancellor Shangguan Yi, who suggested that he depose Empress Wu. He had Shangguan draft an edict, but as Shangguan was doing so, Empress Wu received news of what was happening, and she went to him to plead her case, as he was holding the edict that Shangguan had drafted. Emperor Gaozong could not bear to depose her, and therefore blamed the episode on Shangguan. As both Shangguan and Wang had served on Li Zhong's staff, Empress Wu had Xu falsely accuse Shangguan, Wang, and Li Zhong of planning treason. Shangguan, Wang, and Shangguan's son Shangguan Tingzhi (上官庭芝) were executed, while Li Zhong was forced to commit suicide.[25] (Shangguan Tingzhi's daughter Shangguan Wan'er, then an infant, and her mother Lady Zheng became slaves in the inner palace. After Shangguan Wan'er grew up, she eventually became a trusted secretary for Empress Wu.) Thereafter, at imperial meetings, she would sit behind a curtain behind Emperor Gaozong, and they became referred to by the public as the "Two Holy Ones" (二聖, Er Sheng).[25]

Meanwhile, on Empress Wu's account, her mother Lady Yang had been created the Lady of Rong, and her older sister, now widowed, the Lady of Han. Her brothers Wu Yuanqing and Wu Yuanshuang and cousins Wu Weiliang and Wu Huaiyun, despite the poor relations that they had with Lady Yang, were promoted. However, at a feast that Lady Yang held for them, Wu Weiliang offended Lady Yang by stating that they did not find it honorable for them to be promoted on account of Empress Wu. Empress Wu therefore requested to have them demoted to remote prefectures—outwardly to show modesty, but in reality to avenge the offense to her mother. Wu Yuanqing and Wu Yuanshuang died in effective exile. Meanwhile, in or before 666, Lady of Han died as well, and after her death, Emperor Gaozong created her daughter the Lady of Wei and considered keeping her in the palace—possibly as a concubine—but did not immediately do so as he feared that Empress Wu would be displeased. It was said that Empress Wu heard of this and was nevertheless displeased, and she had the Lady of Wei poisoned, by placing poison in food offerings that Wu Weiliang and Wu Huaiyun had made, and then blaming Wu Weiliang and Wu Huaiyun for the murder. Wu Weiliang and Wu Huaiyun were executed.[25][26]

Also in 666, when Emperor Gaozong offered sacrifices to the gods of heaven and earth at Mount Tai, Empress Wu, in an unprecedented action, offered sacrifices after him, with Princess Dowager Yan, the mother of Emperor Gaozong's brother Li Zhen the Prince of Yue, offering sacrifices after her.[25]

In 670, Lady Yang died, and by Emperor Gaozong's orders, all of the imperial officials and their wives attended her wake and mourned her. Later that year, with the realm suffering from a major draught, Empress Wu offered to be deposed, an offer Emperor Gaozong rejected. He further posthumously honored Wu Shihuo (who had previously been posthumously honored the Duke of Zhou) and Lady Yang the Prince and Princess of Taiyuan.[25]

Meanwhile, the Lady of Han's son Helan Minzhi (賀蘭敏之) had been given the surname of Wu and allowed to inherit the title of Duke of Zhou. However, as it was becoming clear that he was suspecting Empress Wu of having murdered his sister, Empress Wu began to take precautions against him, who was also said to have had an incestuous relationship with his grandmother Lady Yang. In 671, Helan Minzhi was accused of having disobeyed regulations on mourning during Lady Yang's mourning period, and also of raping the daughter of the official Yang Sijian (楊思儉), whom Emperor Gaozong and Empress Wu had previously selected to be the wife and crown princess for Li Hong. Helan Minzhi was exiled and either was executed in exile or committed suicide. In 674, Empress Wu had Wu Yuanshuang's son Wu Chengsi recalled from exile to inherit the title of Duke of Zhou.[27]

Around the new year 675, Empress Wu submitted 12 suggestions—the chief of which were that Laozi (whose name was Li Er), to whom the Tang imperial clan traced its ancestry), should have his work Tao Te Ching be added to the required reading for imperial university students, and that a three-year mourning period should be observed for a mother's death in all cases. (Previously, such a mourning period was not observed if the father were still alive, but was observed if the father was no longer alive.) Emperor Gaozong praised her for her suggestions and adopted them.[27]

In 675, with Emperor Gaozong's illness getting worse, he considered having Empress Wu formally rule as regent. The chancellor Hao Chujun and the official Li Yiyan both opposed, and he did not formally make her regent. However, she began engaging a number of mid-level officials who were literarily talented, including Yuan Wanqing (元萬頃), Liu Yizhi, Fan Lübing, Miao Chuke (苗楚客), Zhou Simao (周思茂), and Han Chubin (韓楚賓), to write a number of works on her behalf, including the Biographies of Notable Women (列女傳), Guidelines for Imperial Subjects (臣軌), and New Teachings for Official Staff Members (百僚新誡). Collectively, they became known as the "North Gate Scholars" (北門學士), because they served inside the palace, which was to the north of the imperial government buildings, and Empress Wu sought advice from them to divert the powers of the chancellors.[27]

Also in 675, a number of persons would fall victim to Empress Wu's ire. Empress Wu had been displeased at the favor that Emperor Gaozong had shown his aunt Princess Changle, who had married the general Zhao Gui (趙瓌) and whose daughter had become the wife and princess of her third son Li Xiǎn the Prince of Zhou. Princess Zhao was therefore accused of unspecified crimes and put under arrest, and was eventually starved to death. Zhao Gui and Princess Changle were exiled. Meanwhile, later that month, Li Hong the Crown Prince, who had been trying to urge Empress Wu not to exercise so much influence on Emperor Gaozong's governance and who had offended Empress Wu by requesting that his half-sisters, Consort Xiao's daughters Princess Yiyang and Xuancheng, who had been under house arrest, be allowed to marry, died suddenly. Traditional historians generally believed that Empress Wu poisoned Li Hong to death. Li Xián, then carrying the title of Prince of Yong, was created crown prince.[27] Meanwhile, Consort Xiao's son Li Sujie and another son of Emperor Gaozong's, Li Shangjin (李上金), were repeatedly accused by her of crimes and demoted.[27]

Empress Wu's relationship with Li Xián also soon deteriorated, as Li Xián had become unsettled after hearing rumors that he was not actually born of Empress Wu but of her sister the Lady of Han, and when Empress Wu heard of his fearfulness, she became angry at him. Further, the sorcerer Ming Chongyan (明崇儼), whom both she and Emperor Gaozong respected and who had stated that Li Xián was unsuitable to inherit the throne, was assassinated in 679, and the assassins were not caught—causing her to suspect Li Xián to be behind the assassination. In 680, Li Xián was accused of crimes, and during investigation by the officials Xue Yuanchao, Pei Yan, and Gao Zhizhou, a large amount of arms was found in Li Xián's palace, and Empress Wu formally accused Li Xián of treason and of assassinating Ming. Li Xián was deposed and exiled, and Li Xiǎn (who had by now been renamed Li Zhe) was created crown prince.[27]

In 681, Princess Taiping was married to Xue Shao (薛紹), the son of Emperor Gaozong's sister Princess Chengyang, in a grand ceremony. Empress Wu, initially unimpressed with the lineages of Xue Shao's brothers' wives, wanted to order his brothers to divorce their wives—stopping only after it was pointed out to her that Lady Xiao, the wife of Xue Shao's older brother Xue Yi (薛顗), was a grandniece of the deceased chancellor Xiao Yu.[27]

In late 683, Emperor Gaozong died while at Luoyang. Li Zhe took the throne (as Emperor Zhongzong), but Empress Wu retained actual authority as empress dowager and regent.[28]

As empress dowager

Immediately, Emperor Zhongzong showed signs of disobeying Empress Dowager Wu—including an insistence on making his father-in-law Wei Xuanzhen (韋玄貞) Shizhong (侍中, the head of the examination bureau of government (門下省, Menxia Sheng) and a post considered one for a chancellor) and giving a mid-level office to his wet nurse's son—despite stern opposition by the chancellor Pei Yan, at one point remarking to Pei:[28]

What would be wrong even if I gave the empire to Wei Xuanzhen? Why do you care about Shizhong so much?

Pei reported this to Empress Dowager Wu, and she, after planning with Pei, Liu Yizhi, and the generals Cheng Wuting (程務挺) and Zhang Qianxu (張虔勖), deposed him and replaced him with her youngest son Li Dan the Prince of Yu (as Emperor Ruizong). Emperor Zhongzong was reduced to the title of Prince of Luling and exiled. Empress Dowager Wu also sent the general Qiu Shenji (丘神勣) to Li Xián's place in exile and forced Li Xián to commit suicide. Although Emperor Ruizong held the title of emperor, Empress Dowager Wu held onto power even more firmly, and the officials were not allowed to meet with Emperor Ruizong, nor was he allowed to rule on matters of state. Rather, the matters of state were ruled on by Empress Dowager Wu. At the suggestion of her nephew Wu Chengsi, she also expanded the ancestral shrine of the Wu ancestors and gave them greater posthumous honors.[28]

Soon thereafter, Li Ji's grandson Li Jingye the Duke of Ying, who had been disaffected by his own exile, started a rebellion at Yang Prefecture (揚州, roughly modern Yangzhou, Jiangsu) -- a rebellion that initially drew much popular support in the region. However, Li Jingye progressed slowly in his attack and did not take advantage of that popular support. Meanwhile, Pei suggested to Empress Dowager Wu that she return imperial authority to the Emperor and argued that doing so would cause the rebellion to collapse on its own. This offended her, and she accused him of being complicit with Li Jingye and had him executed; she also demoted, exiled, and killed a number of officials who, when Pei was arrested, tried to speak on his behalf. She sent the general Li Xiaoyi (李孝逸) to attack Li Jingye, and while Li Xiaoyi was initially unsuccessful, he pushed on at the urging of his assistant Wei Yuanzhong and was eventually able to crush Li Jingye's forces. Li Jingye fled and was killed in flight.[28]

By 685, Empress Dowager Wu began to carry on an affair with the Buddhist monk Huaiyi, and during the next few years, Huaiyi would be progressively bestowed with greater and greater honors.[28][29][30]

In 686, Empress Dowager Wu offered to return imperial authorities to Emperor Ruizong, but Emperor Ruizong, knowing that she did not truly intend to do so, declined, and she continued to exercise imperial authority. Meanwhile, she created copper mailboxes outside the imperial government to encourage the people of the realm to secretly report on others, as she suspected many officials of opposing her. Under these beliefs of hers, secret police officials, including Suo Yuanli, Zhou Xing, and Lai Junchen, began to rise in power and began to carry out systematic false accusations, tortures, and executions of individuals.[28]

In 688, when Empress Dowager Wu was set to make sacrifices to the god of the Luo River (洛水, flowing through Luoyang), she summoned senior members of Tang's Li imperial clan to Luoyang, and the imperial princes, already concerned that she was considering slaughtering them and taking the throne herself, plotted to resist her. However, before a rebellion could be comprehensively planned out, Li Zhen and his son Li Chong the Prince of Langye rose first, at their respective posts as prefects of Yu Prefecture (豫州, roughly modern Zhumadian, Henan) and Bo Prefecture (博州, roughly modern Liaocheng, Shandong). The other princes were not yet ready, however, and did not rise, and forces sent by Empress Dowager Wu and the local forces crushed Li Chong and Li Zhen's forces quickly. Empress Dowager Wu took this opportunity to arrest Emperor Gaozong's granduncles Li Yuanjia (李元嘉) the Prince of Han, Li Lingkui (李靈夔) the Prince of Lu, and Princess Changle, as well as many other members of the Li clan and forced them to commit suicide. Even Princess Taiping's husband Xue Shao was implicated and starved to death. In the subsequent years, there continued to be many politically motivated massacres of officials and Li clan members.[29]

Modified Chinese characters

First version of modified character of "Zhao."
Second version of modified character of "Zhao."
Text from Wu Zetian-era stele dedicated to Ji Jin (姬晉), the crown prince of King Ling of Zhou, recorded in legends as having risen to heaven to become a god. Under the cosmology of Wu Zetian's reign, her lover Zhang Changzong was a reincarnation of Ji Jin. The text of the stele utilizes modified Chinese characters that she promulgated.

In 690, Empress Dowager Wu's cousin's son Zong Qinke submitted a number of modified Chinese characters intended to showcase Empress Dowager Wu's greatness. She adopted them, and she took one of the modified characters, Zhao (曌), to be her formal name (i.e., the name by which the people would exercise naming taboo on). 曌 was made from two other characters: Ming (明) on top, meaning "light" or "clarity", and Kong (空) on the bottom, meaning "sky." The implication appeared to be that she would be like the light shining from the sky. (Zhao (照), meaning "shine", from which 曌 was derived, might have been her original name, but evidence of that is inconclusive.)[6] Later that year, after successive petition drives, initially started by the low-level official Fu Youyi, began to occur in waves, asking her to take the throne herself, Emperor Ruizong offered to take the name of Wu as well. On 18 August, 690,[1] she approved of the requests. She changed the name of the state to Zhou, claiming ancestry from Zhou Dynasty, and took the throne herself as Empress Regnant (with the title of Empress Regnant Shengshen (聖神皇帝), literally "Divine and Sacred Emperor or Empress Regnant"). Emperor Ruizong was deposed and made crown prince with the atypical title of Huangsi (皇嗣).[29] This thus interrupted Tang Dynasty, and she became the first (and only) woman to reign over China as Empress Regnant.[31]

As Empress Regnant of the Zhou Dynasty

Traditional Chinese order of succession (akin to the Salic law in Europe) did not allow a woman to ascend the throne, but Wu Zetian was determined to quash the opposition, and the use of the secret police did not subside, but continued, after her taking the throne. However, while her organization of the civil service system was criticized for its laxity of the promotion of officials, Wu Zetian was considered capable of evaluating the performance of the officials once they were in office. The Song Dynasty historian Sima Guang, in his Zizhi Tongjian, commented:[30]

Even though the Empress Dowager[32] excessively used official titles to cause people to submit to her, if she saw that someone was incompetent, she would immediately depose or even execute him. She grasped the powers of punishment and award, controlled the state, and made her own judgments as to policy decisions. She was observant and had good judgment, so the talented people of the time also were willing to be used by her.


Early reign

Shortly after Wu Zetian took the throne, she elevated the status of Buddhism to be above Taoism, officially sanctioning the religion by building temples named Dayun Temple (大雲寺) in each prefecture belonging to the capital regions of the two capitals Luoyang and Chang'an, and also created nine senior monks dukes. She also enshrined seven generations of Wu ancestors at the imperial ancestral temple, although she also continued to offer sacrifices to the three emperors of Tang (Emperors Gaozu, Taizong, and Gaozong).[29]

She faced the issue of succession. At the time she took the throne, she created Li Dan, the former Emperor Ruizong, crown prince, and bestowed the name of Wu on him.[29] However, the official Zhang Jiafu instigated the commoner Wang Qingzhi (王慶之) into starting a petition drive to make her nephew Wu Chengsi crown prince, arguing that an emperor named Wu should pass the throne to a member of the Wu clan. Wu Zetian was tempted to do so, and when the chancellors Cen Changqian and Ge Fuyuan opposed sternly, they, along with fellow chancellor Ouyang Tong, were executed. Nevertheless, she declined Wang's request to make Wu Chengsi crown prince, but for a time allowed Wang to freely enter the palace to see her. On one occasion, however, when Wang angered her by coming to the palace too much, she asked the official Li Zhaode to batter Wang—and Li Zhaode took the opportunity to batter Wang to death, and his group of petitioners scattered. Li Zhaode then persuaded Wu Zetian to keep Li Dan as crown prince—pointing out that a son was closer in relations than a nephew, and also that if Wu Chengsi became emperor, Emperor Gaozong would never again be worshipped. Wu Zetian agreed, and for some time did not again consider the matter.[29] Further, at Li Zhaode's warning that Wu Chengsi was becoming too powerful, Wu Zetian stripped Wu Chengsi of his chancellor authority and bestowed on him largely honorific titles without actual authority.[30]

Meanwhile, the powers of the secret police officials continued, but appeared to be curbed starting about 692, when Lai Junchen was foiled in his attempt to have the chancellors Ren Zhigu, Di Renjie, Pei Xingben, and other officials Cui Xuanli (崔宣禮), Lu Xian (盧獻), Wei Yuanzhong, and Li Sizhen (李嗣真) executed, as Di, under arrest, hid a secret petition inside a change of clothes and had it submitted by his son Di Guangyuan (狄光遠). The seven were still exiled, but after this incident, particularly at the urging of Li Zhaode, Zhu Jingze, and Zhou Ju (周矩), the waves of politically motivated massacres decreased, although did not end entirely.[30]

Also in 692, Wu Zetian commissioned the general Wang Xiaojie to attack Tufan, and Wang recaptured the four garrisons of Xiyu that had fallen to Tufan in 670 -- Qiuzi, Yutian, Shule, and Suiye.[30]

In 693, after Wu Zetian's trusted lady in waiting Wei Tuan'er (韋團兒), who hated Li Dan (the reason why she did so is lost to history), falsely accused Li Dan's wife Crown Princess Liu and Consort Dou of using witchcraft, Wu Zetian had Crown Princess Liu and Consort Dou killed. Li Dan, fearful that he was to be next, did not dare to speak of them. When Wei further planned to falsely accuse Li Dan, however, someone else informed on her, and she was executed. Wu Zetian nevertheless had Li Dan's sons demoted in their princely titles, and when the officials Pei Feigong (裴匪躬) and Fan Yunxian (范雲仙) were accused of secretly meeting Li Dan, she executed Pei and Fan and further barred officials from meeting Li Dan. There were then accusations that Li Dan was plotting treason, and under Wu Zetian's direction, Lai launched an investigation. Lai arrested Li Dan's servants and tortured them—and the torture was such that many of them were ready to falsely implicate themselves and Li Dan. One of Li Dan's servants, An Jinzang, however, proclaimed Li Dan's innocence and cut his own belly open to swear to that fact. When Wu Zetian heard of what An did, she had doctors attend to An and barely saved his life, and then ordered Lai to end the investigation, thus saving Li Dan.[30]

In 694, Li Zhaode, who had become powerful after Wu Chengsi's removal, was himself thought to be too powerful, and Wu Zetian removed him.[30] Also around this time, she became highly impressed with a group of mystic individuals—the hermit Wei Shifang (on whom she bestowed a chancellor title briefly), who claimed to be over 350 years old; an old Buddhist nun who claimed to be a Buddha and capable of predicting the future; and a non-Han man who claimed to be 500 years old. During this time, Wu briefly claimed to be and adopted the cult imagery of Maitreya, the future Buddha, in order to build popular support for her reign.[33] However, in 695, after the imperial meeting hall (明堂) and the Heavenly Hall (天堂) were burned by Huaiyi (who was jealous at Wu Zetian's taking on another lover, the imperial physician Shen Nanqiu (沈南璆)), Wu Zetian became angry at these individuals for failing to predict the fire; the old nun and her students were arrested and made into slaves; Wei committed suicide; and the old non-Han man fled. Subsequently, she also put Huaiyi to death. After this incident, she appeared to pay less attention to mysticism and was even more dedicated than before to the affairs of state.[30]

Middle reign

However, Wu Zetian's administration was soon in for various troubles on the western and then northern borders. In spring 696, an army she sent, commanded by Wang Xiaojie and Lou Shide against Tufan, was soundly defeated by Tufan generals, the brothers Lun Qinling (論欽陵) and Lun Zanpo (論贊婆), and as a result, she demoted Wang to commoner rank and Lou to be a low level prefectural official, although she eventually restored both of them to general positions.[30] In April of the same year, Wu Zetian recast the Nine Tripod Cauldrons, symbol of ultimate power in ancient China, to reinforce her authority.[34]

A much more serious threat arose in summer 696. The Khitan chieftains Li Jinzhong and Sun Wanrong, brothers-in-law, angry over the mistreatment of the Khitan people by the Zhou official Zhao Wenhui (趙文翽), the prefect of Ying Prefecture (營州, roughly modern Zhaoyang, Liaoning), rebelled, with Li assuming the title of Wushang Khan (無上可汗). Armies that Wu Zetian sent to suppress Li and Sun's rebellion were defeated by Khitan forces, which in turn attacked Zhou proper. Meanwhile, the Eastern Tujue Khan Ashina Mochuo offered to submit, and yet was also launching attacks against Zhou and Khitan—including an attack against Khitan base of operations in winter 696 shortly after Li's death at that time that captured Li's and Sun's families and temporarily halted Khitan operations against Zhou.[30] Sun, after taking over as khan and reorganizing Khitan forces, again attacked Zhou territory and had many victories over Zhou forces, including a battle during which Wang Shijie was killed.[17][30] Wu Zetian tried to allay the situation by making peace with Ashina Mochuo at fairly costly terms—the return of Tujue people who had previously submitted to Zhou and providing Ashina Mochuo with seeds, silk, tools, and iron. In summer 697, Ashina Mochuo launched another attack on Khitan's base of operations, and this time, after his attack, Khitan forces collapsed, and Sun was killed in flight, ending the Khitan threat.[17]

Meanwhile, also in 697, Lai Junchen, who had at one point lost power but had then returned to power, falsely accused Li Zhaode (who had been pardoned) of crimes, and then planned to falsely accuse Li Dan, Li Zhe, the Wu clan princes, and Princess Taiping, of treason. The Wu clan princes and Princess Taiping acted first against him, accusing him of crimes, and he and Li Zhaode were executed together. After Lai's death, the reign of the secret police largely ended, and many of the victims of Lai and the other secret police officials were gradually exonerated posthumously.[17] Meanwhile, around this time, Wu Zetian began to engage herself with two new lovers—the brothers Zhang Yizhi and Zhang Changzong, who became honored within the palace and were eventually created dukes.[17][35]

Around 698, Wu Chengsi and another nephew of Wu Zetian's, Wu Sansi the Prince of Liang, were repeatedly making attempts to have officials persuade Wu Zetian to create one of them crown prince—again citing the reason that an emperor should pass the throne to someone of the same clan. However, Di Renjie, who by now had become a trusted chancellor, was firmly against the idea and instead proposed that Li Zhe be recalled. He was supported in this by fellow chancellors Wang Fangqing and Wang Jishan, as well as Wu Zetian's close advisor Ji Xu, who further persuaded the Zhang brothers to support the idea as well. In spring 698, Wu Zetian agreed and recalled Li Zhe from exile. Soon, Li Dan offered to yield the crown prince position to Li Zhe, and Wu Zetian created Li Zhe crown prince, and soon changed his name back to Li Xiǎn and then Wu Xian.[17]

Later, Ashina Mochuo demanded a Tang dynasty prince for marriage to his daughter, part of a plot to join his family with the Tang, displace the Zhou, and restore Tang rule over China (under his influence). When Wu Zetian sent a member of her own family, grandnephew Wu Yanxiu (武延秀), to marry Mochuo's daughter instead, he rejected him.[36] Ashina Mochuo had no actual intention to cement the peace treaty with a marriage; instead, when Wu Yanxiu arrived, he detained Wu Yanxiu and then launched a major attack on Zhou, advancing as far south as Zhao Prefecture (趙州, in modern Shijiazhuang, Hebei) before withdrawing.[17]

In 699, however, at least the Tufan threat would cease. The Tufan king Tridu Songtsen, unhappy that Lun Qinling was monopolizing power, took an opportunity when Lun Qinling was away from the capital Lhasa to slaughter Lun Qinling's associates. He then defeated Lun Qinling in battle, and Lun Qinling committed suicide. Lun Zanpo and Lun Qinling's son Lun Gongren (論弓仁) surrendered to Zhou. After this, Tufan was under internal turmoil for several years, and there was peace for Zhou on the Tufan border.[17]

Also in 699, Wu Zetian, realizing that she was growing old, feared that after her death, Li Xian and the Wu clan princes would not be able to have peace with each other, and she made him, Li Dan, Princess Taiping, Princess Taiping's second husband Wu Youji (a nephew of hers) the Prince of Ding, and other Wu clan princes to swear an oath to each other.[17]

Late reign

Estimated territorial extent of Wu Zetian's empire.

As Wu Zetian grew older, Zhang Yizhi and Zhang Changzong became increasingly powerful, and even the princes of the Wu clan flattered them. She also increasingly relied on them to handle the affairs of state. This was secretly discussed and criticized by her grandson Li Chongrun the Prince of Shao (Li Xian's son), granddaughter Li Xianhui (李仙蕙) the Lady Yongtai (Li Chongrun's sister), and Li Xianhui's husband Wu Yanji (武延基) the Prince of Wei (Wu Zetian's grandnephew and Wu Chengsi's son), but somehow the discussion was leaked, and Zhang Yizhi reported this to Wu Zetian. She ordered the three of them to commit suicide.[37][38]

Despite her old age, however, Wu Zetian continued to be interested in finding talented officials and promoting them, and individuals that she promoted in her old age included, among others, Cui Xuanwei and Zhang Jiazhen.[35]

By 703, Zhang Yizhi and Zhang Changzong had become resentful of Wei Yuanzhong, who by now was a senior chancellor, for dressing down their brother Zhang Changyi (張昌儀) and rejecting the promotion of another brother Zhang Changqi (張昌期). They were also fearful that if Wu Zetian died, Wei would find a way to execute them, and therefore accused Wei and Gao Jian (高戩), an official favored by Princess Taiping, of speculating on Wu Zetian's old age and death. They initially got Wei's subordinate Zhang Shuo to agree to corroborate the charges, but once Zhang Shuo was before Wu Zetian, he instead accused Zhang Yizhi and Zhang Changzong of forcing him to bear false witness. As a result, Wei, Gao, and Zhang Shuo were exiled, but escaped death.[35]

Removal and death

In autumn of 704, there began to be accusations of corruption levied against Zhang Yizhi and Zhang Changzong, as well as their brothers Zhang Changqi, Zhang Changyi, and Zhang Tongxiu (張同休). Zhang Tongxiu and Zhang Changyi were demoted, but even though the officials Li Chengjia (李承嘉) and Huan Yanfan advocated that Zhang Yizhi and Zhang Changzong be removed as well, Wu Zetian, taking the suggestion of the chancellor Yang Zaisi, did not remove them. Subsequently, charges of corruption against Zhang Yizhi and Zhang Changzong were renewed by the chancellor Wei Anshi.[35]

In winter 704, Wu Zetian became seriously ill for a period, and only the Zhang brothers were allowed to see her; the chancellors were not. This led to speculation that Zhang Yizhi and Zhang Changzong were plotting to take over the throne, and there were repeated accusations of treason. Once her condition improved, Cui Xuanwei advocated that only Li Xian and Li Dan be allowed to attend to her—a suggestion that she did not accept. After further accusations against the Zhang brothers by Huan and Song Jing, Wu Zetian allowed Song to investigate, but before the investigation was completed, she issued a pardon for Zhang Yizhi, derailing Song's investigation.[35]

Commemorative stele at Qianling Mausoleum, where Wu Zetian and her husband Emperor Gaozong were buried.

By spring 705, Wu Zetian was again seriously ill. Zhang Jianzhi, Jing Hui, and Yuan Shuji, planned a coup to kill the Zhang brothers. They convinced the generals Li Duozuo, Li Dan (李湛, note different character than the former emperor), and Yang Yuanyan (楊元琰) and another chancellor, Yao Yuanzhi, to be involved. With agreement from Li Xian as well, they acted on 20 February,[3] killing Zhang Yizhi and Zhang Changzong, and then had Changsheng Hall (長生殿), where Wu Zetian was residing, surrounded. They then reported to her that the Zhang brothers had been executed for treason, and then forced her to yield the throne to Li Xian. On 21 February, an edict was issued in her name that made Li Xian regent, and on 22 February, an edict was issued in her name passing the throne to Li Xian. On 23 February, Li Xian formally retook the throne, and the next day, Wu Zetian, under heavy guard, was moved to the subsidiary palace Shangyang Palace (上陽宮), but was nevertheless honored with the title of Empress Regnant Zetian Dasheng (則天大聖皇帝).[35] On 3 March,[39] Tang Dynasty was restored, ending Zhou.[34] She died on 16 December,[11] and, pursuant to a final edict issued in her name, was no longer referred to as emperor, but instead as Empress Zetian Dasheng (則天大聖皇后).[34] In 706, Wu Zetian's son Emperor Zhongzong had Wu Zetian interred in a joint burial with his father Emperor Gaozong at the Qianling Mausoleum, located near the capital Chang'an on Mount Liang. Emperor Zhongzong also buried at Qianling his brother Li Xián, son Li Chongrun, and daughter Li Xianhui (李仙蕙) the Lady Yongtai (posthumously honored as the Princess Yongtai) — victims of Wu Zetian's wrath.


Forty-six of her poems are collected in the Quantangshi (Collected Tang Poems) and sixty-one essays under her name are recorded in the Quantangwen (Collected Tang Essays).[40] Though a lot of those writings serve political ends, there is one poem in which she laments her mother after she died and expresses her despair at not being able to see her again.


Although short-lived, the Zhou Dynasty, according to some historians, resulted in better equality between the sexes during the succeeding Tang Dynasty.

In early period of Tang Dynasty, because the Confucian ideology has not dominated China entirely and all the emperors were her direct descendents, the evaluation for Wu Zetian were relatively positive during that time. Commentary in subsequent periods, however, especially the book Zizhi Tongjian complied by Sima Guang, criticized Wu Zetian harshly. By the period of Southern Song Dynasty, when Neo-Confucianism was firmly established as the mainstream political ideology of China, their sexist ideology determined the evaluation for Wu Zetian.

Considering the events of her life, literary allusions to Wu Zetian can carry several connotations: a woman who has inappropriately overstepped her bounds, the hypocrisy of preaching compassion while simultaneously engaging in a pattern of corrupt and vicious behavior, and ruling by pulling strings in the background. For many centuries, Wu was used by the Chinese establishment as an example of what can go wrong when a woman is placed in charge. Such sexist opposition to her was only lifted during the late 1960s, when Mao Zedong's wife Jiang Qing rehabilitated Wu as part of a propaganda campaign to suggest herself as a successor to her ailing husband. In his biography Wu, British author Jonathan Clements has pointed out that these wildly differing uses of a historical figure have often led to schizophrenic and often hysterical characterizations. Many alleged poisonings and other incidents, such as the premature death of her daughter, may have rational explanations—for example, Empress Wang did smother the child—but have been twisted by later opponents.

The traditional Chinese historical view on her was generally mixed—admiring her for her abilities in governing the state, but vilifying her for her actions in seizing imperial power. Typical was a commentary by the Later Jin Dynasty historian Liu Xu, the lead editor of the Book of Tang:[41]

The year that Lady Wu declared herself regent, heroic individuals were all mournful of the unfortunate turn of events, worried that the dynasty would fall, and concerned that they could not repay the grace of the deceased emperor [i.e., Emperor Gaozong] and protect his sons. Soon thereafter, great accusations arose, and many innocent people were falsely accused and stuck their necks out in waiting for execution. Heaven and earth became like a huge cage, and even if one could escape it, where could he go? That was lamentable. In the past, the trick of covering the nose[42] surprised the realm in its poisonousness, and the disaster of the human pig[43] caused the entire state to mourn. In order to take over as empress, Empress Wu strangled her own infant daughter; her willingness to crush her own flesh and blood showed how great her viciousness and vile nature was, although this is nothing more than what evil individuals and jealous women might do. However, she accepted the words of righteousness and honored the upright. Although she was like a hen that crowed, she eventually returned the rightful rule to her son. She quickly dispelled the accusation against Wei Yuanzhong, comforted Di Renjie with kind words, respected the will of the times and suppressed her favorites, and listened to honest words and ended the terror of the secret police officials. This was good, this was good.

Second Zhou Dynasty (690–705)

Convention: use personal name
Temple names Family name and first name Period of reign Era names and their associated dates
None Wǔ Zhào(武曌) 690-705

Tiānshòu (天授): 16 October 690 – 21 April 692 (18 months)
Rúyì (如意): 22 April - 22 October 692 (6 months)
Chángshòu (長壽): 23 October 692 – 8 June 694 (19 ½ months)
Yánzài (延載): 9 June 694 – 21 January 695 (7 ½ months)
Zhèngshèng (證聖): 22 January - 21 October 695 (9 months)
Tiāncèwànsuì (天冊萬歲): 22 October 695 – 19 January 696 (3 months)
Wànsuìdēngfēng (萬歲登封): 20 January - 21 April 696 (3 months)
Wànsuìtōngtiān (萬歲通天): 22 April 696 – 28 September 697 (17 months)
Shéngōng (神功): 29 September - 19 December 697 (2 ½ months)
Shènglì (聖曆): 20 December 697 – 26 May 700 (29 months)
Jiǔshì (久視): 27 May 700 – 14 February 701 (8 ½ months)
Dàzú (大足): 15 February - 25 November 701 (9 ½ months)
Cháng'ān (長安): 26 November 701 – 29 January 705 (38 months)
Shénlóng (神龍): 30 January - 3 March 705 (Zhou Dynasty was abolished on 3 March 705, and the Tang Dynasty was restored that same day, but the Shenlong era continued to be used by Emperor Zhongzong until 707)

Chancellors during reign

Personal information

  • Great-Great-Great-Grandfather
    • Wu Heje (武克已), posthumously honored as Emperor Cheng 成皇帝 (with the temple name of Yanzu 嚴祖)
  • Great-Great-Great-Grandmother
    • Lady Pei, Wu Heje's wife, posthumously honored as Empress Chengzhuang (成莊皇后)
  • Great-Great-Grandfather
    • Wu Juchang (武居常), posthumously honored as Emperor Jianjin 章敬皇帝 (with the temple name of Suzu 肅祖)
  • Great-Great-Grandmother
    • Lady Liu, Wu Juichang's wife, posthumously honored as Empress Zhangjing (章敬皇后)
  • Great-Grandfather
    • Wu Jian (武儉), posthumously honored as Emperor Zhaoan 昭安皇帝 (with the temple name of Lizu 烈祖)
  • Great-grandmother
    • Lady Song, Wu Jian's wife, posthumously honored as Empress Zhao'an (昭安皇后)
  • Grandfather
    • Wu Hua (武華), posthumously honored as Emperor Wenmu 文穆皇帝 (with the temple name of Xuanzu 顯祖)
  • Grandmother
    • Lady Zhao, Wu Hua's wife, posthumously honored as Empress Wenmu (文穆皇后)
  • Father
    • Wu Shihuo (武士彠) (559 - 635), Duke Ding of Ying, later further successively posthumously honored as the Duke of Zhou, the Prince of Taiyuan, King Zhongxiao (忠孝王), and Emperor Wushangxiaominggao 無上孝明高皇帝(with the temple name of Taizu 太祖)
  • Mother
    • Lady Yang (579 - 3 October 670), Wu Shihuo's second wife, daughter of Yang Da (551 - 612), honored as the Lady of Rong, Lady of Zuan, Lady of Wei, and finally Lady Zhonglie of Lu, later further successively posthumously honored with titles corresponding to Wu Shihuo's; she came from the aristocratic Yang family of the Hong Ning region and was of the same clan as the imperial family of the Sui Dynasty[45]
  • Husband
  • Major known lovers
    • Huaiyi, né Feng Xiaobao (馮小寶) (name changed 685), the Duke of Liang (created 688) then the Duke of E (created 690, killed 695)
    • Shen Nanqiu (沈南璆), imperial physician
    • Zhang Yizhi, the Duke of Heng (created 702, killed 705)
    • Zhang Changzong, the Duke of Ye (created 702, killed 705)
  • Children
    • Li Hong (李弘) (b. 652), originally the Prince of Dai (created 653), later the Crown Prince (created 656, poisoned 675), posthumously honored Emperor Xiaojing with the temple name Yizong
    • Li Xián (李賢) (note different tone than his brother) (b. 653), name changed to Li De (李德) 672, changed back to Li Xián 674, originally the Prince of Lu (created 655), later the Prince of Pei (created 661), later the Prince of Yong (created 672), later the Crown Prince (created 675), later demoted to commoner rank (demoted 680, forced to commit suicide 684), posthumously initially honored the Prince of Yong, later honored Crown Prince Zhanghuai
    • Li Xiǎn (李顯) (note different tone than his brother) (b. 655), name changed to Li Zhe (李哲) 677, changed back to Li Xiǎn 698, changed to Wu Xian (武顯) 700, changed back to Li Xian 705, initially the Prince of Zhou (created 656), later the Prince of Ying (created 677), later the Crown Prince (created 680), later Emperor Zhongzong of Tang (enthroned 684), later demoted to Prince of Luling (demoted 684), later the Crown Prince (created 698), later emperor again (705)
    • Li Dan (李旦), né Li Xulun (李旭輪) (b. 662), name changed to Li Lun (李輪) 669, changed again to Li Dan 678, changed again to Wu Lun (武輪) 690, changed again to Wu Dan (武旦) 698, changed back to Li Dan 705, originally the Prince of Yin (created 662), later the Prince of Yu (created 666), later the Prince of Ji (created 669), later the Prince of Xiang (created 675), later the Prince of Yu (created 678), later Emperor Ruizong of Tang (enthroned 684), later demoted to Crown Prince (demoted 690), later demoted to Prince of Xiang (demoted 698), later emperor again (710)
    • Princess Si of Anding (born and died 654), supposedly murdered by Emperor Gaozong's first wife Empress Wang
    • Princess Taiping (forced to commit suicide 713)

Titles carried, in chronological order

  • Lady Wu (maiden style) 624-637
  • Cairen (才人) (15th ranked imperial consort) 637-649
  • Zhaoyi (昭儀) (Fourth ranked imperial consort) 650?-655
  • Empress (Huanghou (皇后)) 655-683
    • Also known as Tianhou (天后) 674-683
  • Empress dowager (Huang Taihou (皇太后)) 683-690
    • Also known as Shengmu Shenhuang (聖母神皇) 688-690
  • Emperor (Huangdi (皇帝)) 690-705
    • Shengshen Huangdi (聖神皇帝) 690-693
    • Jinlun Shengshen Huangdi (金輪聖神皇帝) 693-694
    • Yuegu Jinlun Shengshen Huangdi (越古金輪聖神皇帝) 694-695
    • Jinlun Shengshen Huangdi 695
    • Tiance Jinlun Dasheng Huangdi 695-705
    • Zetian Dasheng Huangdi (則天大聖皇帝) 705
  • Posthumous empress titles
    • Zetian Dasheng Huanghou (則天大聖皇后) 705-710
    • Tianhou (天后) 710
    • Dasheng Tianhou (大聖天后) 710-712
    • Tianhou Shengdi (天后聖帝) 712
    • Shenghou (聖后) 712-716
    • Zetian Huanghou (則天皇后) 716-749
    • Zetian Shunsheng Huanghou (則天順聖皇后) (final version)


Cultural references

Works of fiction

  • A fictionalized Wu Zetian appears together with Di Renjie (Judge Dee) in Eleanor Cooney & Daniel Alteri's mystery novel Deception: A Novel of Mystery and Madness in Ancient China
  • A novel, titled The Walking Boy, by Lydia Kwa was published in 2005 by Key Porter Books, Canada.
  • Lady Wu, written by Lin Yutang, combines thoroughly researched historical data and storytelling to weave a sensually vicious portrayal of the woman who would be Emperor.
  • Impératrice (French), biographical novel by Shan Sa, born in Beijing, and based on Empress Wu's life. Translated into:
    Empress, for English ; Jotei: Waga na wa Sokuten Bukō (女帝: わが名は則天武后, trans. "Female emperor: My name is Empress Wu Zetian"), for Japanese; Kaiserin, for German.
  • A historical novel with the title Cairen Wu Zhao was written by Chinese novelist Su Tong elaborating her life and her emotional experience.
  • Isle of Woman (Tor Fantasy, 1993) by Piers Anthony contains a chapter about Wu Zetian's rise to power.
  • Green Dragon, White Tiger (Onyx, 1988) by Irish writer Annette Motley, a historical romantic fiction of the empress.



Computer games

Notes and references

  1. ^ a b 兩千年中西曆轉換
  2. ^ She was already partially in control of power since around 660, and her power was even more paramount after January 665. Her Zhou Dynasty was proclaimed on 16 October 690, and she proclaimed herself Empress Regnant on 19 October, demoting her son Emperor Ruizong to the rank of crown prince with the unusual title of Huangsi (皇嗣).
  3. ^ a b 兩千年中西曆轉換
  4. ^ She lost power in the palace coup of 20 February 705, and on 22 February, she was forced to return imperial authority to her son Li Xian, who was restored as Emperor Zhongzong on 23 February. Zhou Dynasty was terminated with the restoration of the Tang Dynasty on 3 March.
  5. ^ She was given the name of Mei by Emperor Taizong in the late 630s after she had entered the imperial palace.
  6. ^ a b Her cousin's son Zong Qinke created a number of new characters in December 689, and she chose 曌 as her given name, which became her taboo name when she ascended the throne the next year. Some sources assert that this character was actually written 瞾. Some sources (e.g., Bo Yang Edition of the Zizhi Tongjian, vols. 47-49) also assert that her original given name was Zhao and that in 689 she only changed the written character, but this is confirmed by neither the Book of Tang nor the New Book of Tang, neither of which stated her original given name. It should be noted that her grandson Li Chongzhao, sometime after she became emperor, changed his name to Li Chongrun to observe naming taboo for her, and the character of "Zhao" in Li Chongzhao's name was 照. See Book of Tang, vol. 86 [1] and New Book of Tang, vol. 81.[2]
  7. ^ Zetian was the beginning of the honorific name (徽號) -- Emperor Zetian Dasheng (則天大聖皇帝) -- given to her in February 705 by her son Emperor Zhongzong. The honorific name was used as her posthumous name when she died ten months later, although she was also frequently referred to as "Heavenly Empress" throughout the rest of Tang Dynasty.
  8. ^ Final version of her posthumous name as given in July 749.
  9. ^ Zhou Dynasty was abolished before her death, and she was reverted to the rank of empress consort on her death, so she did not have a temple name, as empresses consort, unlike ruling emperors, were not given temple names.
  10. ^ a b c The birth year given here is deduced from the age at death given in the New Book of Tang, compiled in 1045-1060, which is the date favored by modern historians. The year of birth deduced from the age at death in the Book of Tang, compiled in 941-945, is 623. The year of birth deducted from the age at death and the age when she entered the palace, in the Zizhi Tongjian, compiled in 1065-84, is 624. Compare New Book of Tang, vol. 4 [3] with Book of Tang, vol. 6 [4] and Zizhi Tongjian, vols. 195, 208.
  11. ^ a b c 兩千年中西曆轉換
  12. ^ General note: Dates given here are in the Julian calendar. They are not in the proleptic Gregorian calendar.
  13. ^ See, e.g., Zizhi Tongjian, vol. 234 [submission of Lu Zhi to Emperor Dezong of Tang, citing Wu Zetian as the prime example of a capable selector of officials]; Zhao Yi's Notes of the Twenty-Two Histories (二十二史劄記), Empress Wu Accepted Corrections and Knew People.[5], .
  14. ^ Book of Tang, vol. 51
  15. ^ a b New Book of Tang, vol. 76
  16. ^ a b See, e.g., Zizhi Tongjian, vol. 199 [ Chu Suiliang's assertion that she had "served" (euphemism for sexual relations) Emperor Taizong when trying to stop Emperor Gaozong from creating her empress].
  17. ^ a b c d e f g h i Zizhi Tongjian, vol. 206.
  18. ^ The modern historian Bo Yang, based on the fact that Consort Wu's oldest son Li Hong was born in 652, fixed the date of this incident as 650, but 651 is also a possibility. See Bo Yang Edition of Zizhi Tongjian, vol. 47.
  19. ^ Bo Yang, Outlines of the HIstory of the Chinese (中國人史綱), vol. 2, p. 520.
  20. ^ Luo Binwang, Declaration on Xu Jingye's Behalf Against Wu Zhao, collected in Guwen Guanzhi, vol. 7.
  21. ^ a b c d Zizhi Tongjian, vol. 199.
  22. ^ a b c d e Zizhi Tongjian, vol. 200.
  23. ^ See, e.g., http://www.stroke.com.tw/WEB/b/b1-4.htm.
  24. ^ See, e.g., Bo Yang Edition of the Zizhi Tongjian, vol. 40 [683].
  25. ^ a b c d e Zizhi Tongjian, vol. 201.
  26. ^ For Wu Shihuo's career and family, see generally Book of Tang, vol. 58 [6] and New Book of Tang, vol. 206.[7]
  27. ^ a b c d e f g Zizhi Tongjian, vol. 202.
  28. ^ a b c d e f Zizhi Tongjian, vol. 203.
  29. ^ a b c d e f Zizhi Tongjian, vol. 204.
  30. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Zizhi Tongjian, vol. 205.
  31. ^ During Emperor Taizong's reign, a female agrarian rebel leader named Chen Shuozhen (陳碩真) had declared herself "emperor" with the title Emperor Wenjia (文佳皇帝), but as Chen was quickly defeated and killed, she is typically not considered a true "emperor." See Zizhi Tongjian, vol. 199. Earlier than that, during Northern Wei Dynasty, Empress Dowager Hu, after her son Emperor Xiaoming's death, falsely declared Emperor Xiaoming's daughter to be a son and declared the daughter to be the new emperor, but almost immediately revealed that the child was in fact female, and thereafter declared Yuan Zhao, the young son of Emperor Xiaoming's cousin Yuan Baohui (元寶暉) emperor. See Zizhi Tongjian, vol. 152. Emperor Xiaoming's daughter is also therefore not usually considered a true emperor.
  32. ^ Throughout the Zizhi Tongjian descriptions of Wu Zetian's reign, Sima referred to her as "the Empress Dowager", implicitly refusing to recognize her as empress regnant, although he used her era names.
  33. ^ Domesticating the Dharma, Richard D. McBride, 2007. Google Books Preview
  34. ^ a b c Zizhi Tongjian, vol. 208.
  35. ^ a b c d e f Zizhi Tongjian, vol. 207.
  36. ^ Jonathan Wolfram Eberhard (1997). A history of China. University of California Press. p. 186. ISBN 0520032683. http://books.google.com/books?id=mUofeN6WW_IC&pg=PA186&dq=kao+tsung+demanded+chinese+prince+daughter&hl=en&ei=LWhMTOTUDoL58AaKzeU2&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CCsQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=kao%20tsung%20demanded%20chinese%20prince%20daughter&f=false. Retrieved 2010-06-28. 
  37. ^ The Zizhi Tongjian asserted that Li Chongrun was forced to commit suicide, but the Book of Tang and the New Book of Tang asserted in his biographies that he was caned to death on Wu Zetian's orders. Compare Zizhi Tongjian, vol. 207, with Book of Tang, vol. 86 [8] and New Book of Tang, vol. 81.[9] The Book of Tang, meanwhile, inconsistently asserted in the chronicles of Wu Zetian's reign that he was forced to commit suicide. See Book of Tang, vol. 6.[10] The chronicles of Wu Zetian's reign in the New Book of Tang merely stated that the three of them "were killed." See New Book of Tang, vol. 4.[11]
  38. ^ However, some modern historians, based on the text on Li Xianhui's tombstone (written after Emperor Zhongzong was restored to the throne in 705), which suggested that she died the day after her brother and her husband and that she was pregnant at death, and the fact that the skeleton believed to be hers had a small pelvis, have proposed the theory that she was not ordered to commit suicide, but had, in grief over her brother's and husband's deaths, had either a miscarriage or a difficult birth and died from that. See, e.g., illustrations preceding the Bo Yang Edition of the Zizhi Tongjian, vol. 49.
  39. ^ 兩千年中西曆轉換
  40. ^ Chang, Saussy and Kwong. p. 31. 
  41. ^ Book of Tang, vol. 6.
  42. ^ This was a reference to a story relayed in the Han Feizi. In the story, it was mentioned that the king of Qi gave a beautiful woman to King Huai of Chu as a gift, to be his concubine. King Huai's jealous wife Queen Zheng Xiu (鄭袖) told her, "The King loves you greatly, but dislikes your nose. If you cover your nose whenever you see him, you can ensure that he will continue to be loved by him. She accepted Queen Zheng's suggestion. When King Huai asked Queen Zheng, "Why does she cover her nose when she sees me?" Queen Zheng responded, "She often said that Your Majesty had a stench to you." King Huai, in anger, yelled, "Cut off her nose!"
  43. ^ This is a reference to the torture that Emperor Gao of Han's wife Empress Lü Zhi carried out against Emperor Gao's favorite concubine Consort Qi after Emperor Gao's death, once Empress Lü became empress dowager -- by cutting her limbs off, blinding her, deafening her, and referring to her as the human pig (人彘).
  44. ^ a b c d e f The table of chancellors in the New Book of Tang had several entries with regard to chancellor movements during Wu Zetian's reign that were considered errant entries (as they were immediately duplicated within other subsequent entries) by both its commentators and Sima Guang, the lead editor of the Zizhi Tongjian, and accordingly, those entries are not considered here. Further, it gave no date for the end of Lu Yuanfang's second stint as chancellor, but the Zizhi Tongjian did. See New Book of Tang, vol. 61.[12]
  45. ^ Her father's older brother was Yang Xiong (楊雄), the father of Yang Gongren and Yang Shidao.


  • Kang-i Sun Chang,Haun Saussy,Charles Yim-tze Kwong (1999). Women writers of traditional China: an anthology of poetry and criticism. Stanford University Press. 

Further reading

  • Cawthorne, Nigel (2007). Daughter of Heaven - The True Story of the Only Woman to become Emperor of China. Oxford: One World Publications. pp. 271 pages.. ISBN 978-1-85168-530-1. 
  • Wu Zhao: China's Only Woman Emperor, written by N. Harry Rothschild and published 2008 by Pearson Education, Inc.
  • Empress Wu Zetian in Fiction and in History: Female Defiance in Confucian China by Dora Shu-fang Dien (Nova Publishing, 2003) explores the life of Empress Wu Zetian and the ways women found to participate in public life, despite the societal constraints of dynastic China.
  • Wu: The Chinese Empress Who Schemed, Seduced and Murdered Her Way to Become a Living God by Jonathan Clements offers a critical appraisal of many primary sources and includes an appendix comparing fictional accounts.
Chinese royalty
Preceded by
Empress Wang
Empress of Tang Dynasty
Succeeded by
Empress Wei
Regnal titles
Preceded by
(Dynasty established)
Empress Regnant of the Zhou Dynasty
Succeeded by
(Dynasty abolished)
Preceded by
Emperor Ruizong of Tang
Empress Regnant of China
Succeeded by
Emperor Zhongzong of Tang
Honorary titles
Title last held by
Emperor Gaozu of Tang
Retired Emperor of China
Title next held by
Emperor Ruizong of Tang

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